How Sweet Sweet and Lowdown Is

Penn Sharpens Woody Allen Winner

As the Christmas countdown begins, don’t expect much seasonal joy from the movies. As I sit through one after another of this year’s crop of dismal and depressing holiday releases about drugs, child abuse, incest, murder, violence, prison, cancer, poverty and man’s inhumanity to man, it becomes clear that this may be the Christmas when I end up respecting Woody Allen more than ever. Sweet and Lowdown , a breezy confection as syncopated and agreeable as its title, has nothing on its mind but fun. It embraces Woody’s two favorite things-eccentricity and jazz-and makes a comedy star of Sean Penn that will surprise even his most ardent fans.

In a mellow mood after the raunchy Deconstructing Harry and the cynical (but brilliant, in my opinion) Celebrity , Woody not only showcases some of his favorite jazz standards but provides a fascinating insight into one of the most irritatingly offbeat characters he has ever created. The film is a fictionalized account of the life and turbulent times of Emmet Ray, a legendary jazz guitarist who flourished briefly in the 1930’s, fashioning himself after his idol, the French gypsy Django Reinhardt, then disappeared after cutting a few rare recordings considered by music archivists and jazz historians as some of the greatest jazz classics ever made. One by one, experts such as critic Nat Hentoff, Ben Duncan and even Woody himself appear for documentary-style interviews to discuss their knowledge, views and gossip about what happened to Emmet Ray, as the movie dramatizes the events in his rapid rise and fall-most of them weird and all of them hilarious.

As played with pint-sized panache by the astoundingly libidinous Mr. Penn, he was both a jerk and a genius: hard-drinking, boastful, obnoxious, flamboyant, irresponsible, never punctual, pathetic and completely captivating. Part-time pimp and kleptomaniac, he was a flashy dresser in white Gatsby suits and wingtips whose idea of a great date was to take a girl to the local garbage dump to shoot rats with a .45. If she protested, he’d say, “Whatsa matter? I brought sandwiches.” An amoral artist who loved his guitar more than any human being, Emmet was nevertheless rendered temporarily powerless by two contrasting females, even though he treated them both shabbily.

Samantha Morton, the angel-faced British kewpie doll who made a brief but memorable impression in the recent Dreaming of Joseph Lees and will soon be seen as a heroin addict in the grim Jesus’ Son , plays Hattie, a cheerful but mute waif he picks up on the boardwalk in Atlantic City who tags along on the road to change Emmet’s tires and launder his shirts. Alluring Uma Thurman plays Blanche, the exotic, well-bred adventuress and wannabe journalist who marries Emmet and takes notes on his mile-high egotism for a book idea before running off with a gangster (Anthony LaPaglia). Between gangland shootouts, fast getaways and one disaster after another, there is some of the sweetest music this side of heaven, with magnificent guitar solos by Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli, and Mr. Penn so immersed in the guitar techniques it looks like he’s doing the playing himself with no coaching from anybody. Even if you don’t love this movie as much as I do, you’ll want to own the soundtrack CD.

Sweet and Lowdown is a charming, huggable film in which the usual Allen one-liners are in short supply for deliberate reasons. It’s strong on character and mood and a rhapsodic combo beat that keeps it moving where gags used to go. But there are occasional jokes and a few slapstick sequences, such as a nightclub entrance where Emmet is lowered on stage sitting on a gold moon with a loaded gun bulging in his pants pocket, and it even shares one hilarious amateur contest with Broadway Danny Rose .

One of the most amusing scenes involves a trip to Hollywood, where Emmet and his jazz band provide an arrangement of “All of Me” for one of those musical short subjects popular in the early 1940’s, while Hattie is spotted by a movie director and cast in a small harem role in a smarmy epic called The Tomb of the Mummy . Woody’s homage, perhaps, to Singin’ in the Rain ?

The almost wall-to-wall jazz is splendid, the overall affection for the period gloriously recreated by the great Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei, who shot all those Zhang Yimou classics like Raise the Red Lantern , working in his first American film, and the performances are radiant. Especially Mr. Penn, who has never seemed looser or more carefree. With his pencil mustache, his perfectly pressed linens and his tousled, floppy hair falling over one eye like a jittery Lhasa apso, he looks like Felix Bressart, Fritz Feld and all those other Hollywood immigrants in the 1940’s who played hysterical violinists, bombastic headwaiters and nervous second fiddles to Jose Iturbi and Lauritz Melchior in highbrow Joe Pasternak musicals.

There’s been a lot of churlish guff written about how, after more than 25 movies and three Academy Awards, Woody Allen’s popularity has waned among American audiences. This one should bring them back into the fold. It may not be a masterpiece like Zelig or Annie Hall , but it has charm and intelligence and entertainment value, and it’s not like any other Christmas offering you’ll see this season. Anyone who doesn’t smile at Sweet and Lowdown just doesn’t like movies.

We’re Rooting For You, Sigourney

How many millions can a girl make in formula flicks about ghost busters and alien monsters before she begins to wonder if she can still act? Fighting like a warhorse to win respect in more mature roles, Sigourney Weaver now tackles A Map of the World , a modest sob-sister melodrama based on the depressing novel by Jane Hamilton that is so turgid and cold that it manages the impossible: making Sigourney look dull. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature! Though a brainy actress with good instincts, solid theater training and a sense of humor that she rarely gets a chance to show on film, Ms. Weaver makes choices only her agent could fathom.

The first time you see Alice Goodwin, she is burning breakfast, scowling at her two daughters, barking at her hard-working farmer husband, and balancing more domestic problems than Erma Bombeck. Alice and her husband Howard are newcomers in a small farm community in Wisconsin who are so odd it’s no wonder their neighbors treat them as outsiders. Between household duties, farm chores and a job as school nurse, Alice is stressed to the max. She doesn’t show much interest in the farm, she treats the children in her school like water boys in Napoleon’s army and barely seems able to tolerate the occasional sex her good-natured, hard-working husband needs after a long day slopping the hogs. Her hair is a mess, her house is a mess, and her clothes you couldn’t give away at a yard sale.

When her best friend’s child accidentally drowns on her farm, the whole community turns on Alice. Before she can even grasp what’s going on, another child accuses her of molesting him at school, and she’s dragged away and thrown in jail. As difficult as this is to believe, it makes even less sense when the community turns its back on Alice’s grief-stricken husband and desperate children. The neighbors refuse to baby-sit while Howard visits Alice in jail. They spit at the children in the supermarket. They refuse to share their food. Is this Wisconsin or Mars?

To make everything more confusing, Alice does next to nothing to defend herself or protect her family from these outrages. She’s an innocent victim, but she’s also arrogant, self-absorbed, a caustic smart-mouth and something of a pain in the ass who is often difficult to feel sorry for or even like. Alice is such a tough oddball she actually likes it in jail. When a convicted killer tries to beat the living crap out of her, Alice beats her to the punch and knocks herself out with her own fists. As one tragedy leads to another, Alice carries around a map of the world she drew as a child when her own mother was dying just to remind her where she is. By this time, the audience is clearly in need of its own map, just to remind us who she is.

After Howard sacrifices his beloved farm to pay for his wife’s trial, and the suds dry, the family moves to another town to start a new life. Too late. They should have moved away 10 minutes after the film began.

The first-rate cast includes Julianne Moore as Alice’s only friend in a town of vipers, the always excellent David Strathairn as Alice’s bewildered and long-suffering husband, marvelous Arliss Howard as her exasperated defense lawyer with a fool for a client and Louise Fletcher as her sympathetic mother-in-law. They literally knock themselves out bringing kitchen-sink realism to the contrived pathos that surrounds them, but the rudimentary direction by Scott Elliott gives A Map of the World the flat, poached look of a tumid television movie of the week. We love you, Sigourney, but if these movies don’t get better, you may wake up one morning and find your name is Karen Black.